War in the Balkans: War is fight for the future of Europe, declares Clinton

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PRESIDENT BILL Clinton, on a visit to Europe, raised the stakes in the Kosovo conflict yesterday, promoting Nato's air campaign as a "a fight for the future of Europe" and pledging to intensify it "in an unrelenting manner".

Despite the war rhetoric, the pace of diplomacy also intensified with both sides in the conflict making gestures towards possible compromise. The United States said it was prepared to free two captured Serb soldiers being held in Germany, once they have been questioned. At the same time, Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovo leader who had been held under house arrest by the Serbs since the beginning of the conflict, turned up in Rome with his family after being freed by Belgrade.

But there was more gloom from Nato which warned that Kosovo's 800,000 refugees may be living in exile through next winter. There were also hints - which were denied by the alliance - that it is planning to commit as many as 60,000 ground troops to enter Kosovo before the end of July, once the Serb military has been subdued and there is what planners call a "semi-permissive" environment.

The admission that Nato is preparing to dig in for a lengthy campaign coincided with the first fatalities among its military personnel and the loss of a second Apache helicopter during training in Albania. President Clinton's visit to the US base in Spangdahlem, southern Germany, was overshadowed by the loss of the two airmen. As he mingled with pilots and ground crew he reminded the troops of previous engagements in Europe, including their intervention in Bosnia. "If we don't want your successors to have to come to this continent to fight another bitter war, then we must stand in Kosovo for the elemental principles of the common humanity of every breathing, living person in this continent," he said.

He drew on the rhetoric of the Cold War and evoked images of the Third Reich as he lambasted the "evil" regime in Belgrade, which had inflicted "concentration camps, murder and rape" on the population. "Kosovo is an affront to everything we stand for," Mr Clinton went on. "We must repudiate it, we must reverse it, and we intend to do that."

The diplomatic track will be pursued again today when, at Germany's behest, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven and Russia meet in Bonn to discuss Kosovo. Mr Clinton will also be there. The meeting will concentrate on narrowing differences between Nato and Moscow on the prospective Nato- led United Nations intervention force in Kosovo, should Slobodan Milosevic begin withdrawing his troops and allow the refugees home.

"I cannot guarantee that we will secure a successful outcome, and we do not want peace at any price," the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said ahead of the meeting.

Tony Blair was last night warned that support for the bombing campaign among Labour MPs had started to go "flakey" because of casualties among civilians in Kosovo.

The Prime Minister told MPs there must be "no let up" in the bombing campaign to ensure the refugees could return home. "We must ensure our demands are met, and not for one instance must we let up," he said.

But Mr Blair was later told by officers of the Parliamentary Labour Party, led by Clive Soley, that there were signs of cracks in backbench support for the war.

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